NDTV’s Prannoy Roy spoke to Nobel Laureate Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah.
Here’s the full transcript of the interview:
NDTV: Abdulrazak Gurnah, thank you very, very much for joining us. It’s a real honour for all of us.
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: It’s pleasure, for me.
NDTV: Professor Gurnah, I just love your writing and your work. It’s in fact, very moving and it made me weep on many occasions. Your work is also very, very important…
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: I’m sorry.
NDTV: Your work is also very important in understanding colonialism, and how it affects the lives of families. You were born and brought up in Zanzibar, now a part of Tanzania, and you left there when you were 18. And you arrived in England in 1967. In fact you arrived in England at a terrible time, the time of Enoch Powell, and all that anti-immigrant rhetoric. You must have been really homesick for your beautiful country and your family. In fact, your first book out of your 10 books is called Memory of Departure. Did you ever think of leaving England and going back to Zanzibar? And what were some of the experiences you faced after you first arrived?
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: Well, thank you. First of all, for inviting me and then for your introductory generous words. Thank you. Yes, it was a difficult time, 1967 into 1968, and so on, those very late years of the 1960s. You may recall that several new immigration laws were brought in towards the end of that decade. Partly because the British government had panicked itself, the British people had panicked themselves into a huge worry about what the meaning of all these people arriving was. And these people were people from India, from Pakistan, but more recently at that point, from East Africa. Because it was soon after that, that, sorry, it was soon before that, that the East African countries became independent. And as you know, there is a large community of India, people from India, and Pakistan, but India before then of course, in that part of the world.
And so, there’s a great exodus almost, to use that word, of people of Indian ancestry, even before Amin expelled Indians, or Asians as they became called, from Uganda. And they’re all arriving in the UK. And this, the pictures were these very, very ungenerous pictures, poor people. When I say poor, I mean more or less they had to leave everything behind, coming down the steps of the aircraft with the suitcase and their cardigans, into this freezing country, completely unaware what they’re going to face in a few days. And there, on the other hand, was the press and the government, just talking in this narrative of inhumanity almost. But you know, the difference between now and then is that it’s simply that the target has changed. That narrative, and that ungenerous attitude, is still there is. It is now just directed to a different group of people, say Afghanis, or the Syrian refugees, or the young Africans who are ruining everything, their lives I mean, in trying to make it to Europe. So, it was difficult then, but in a way, I think it’s probably more difficult now.
NDTV: Absolutely. In fact, you arrived in England, coincidentally at almost exactly the same time that I did as a student. And I know what it was like. England at that time was like replete with something you’ve often called meanness. It was tough being surrounded by meanness, like being called a wog. Or our accent being mimicked like, ‘Hello, Mr. Roy, why don’t you go back to where you belong’, regularly. I faced that many times. You’ve spoken about how Britain has been convulsed, from time to time, with a hatred towards immigrants. Britain, and the west actually, are triggered by movements of people seeking asylum, as you just mentioned, or a new life. Like that 65-year-old Afghan gentleman, descending into a British airport, Stansted, with a suitcase, from a hijacked plane, looking for a new life. He wasn’t coming to beg. People haven’t come to beg. In fact, they’ve done very well. Like yourself. You’ve made England proud by winning the Nobel Prize. And a lot of immigrants and migrants have done very well. But in your opinion, has that kind of convulsion intensified? Has that meanness, in public discourse about refugees, hardened now?
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: Well, I’m very interested, first of all, to hear that you were there at the same time and to have you corroborating some of the things that I have been saying. I think, in many ways, amongst the community of people, I think there is a greater willingness, there’s a greater understanding. After all, in some of the larger cities, or some of the cities where the larger communities of people who are not ancestrally British, their children are now going to school together. Their children are perhaps in some cases, even dating, or even marrying. So, their presence is now felt differently from the way that perhaps you and I were felt when we, as young people, were walking the streets of British cities or English cities. So, I think there is kind of more, welcoming, more kind of like everyday acceptance of the presence of people from other places.
Then of course there are all these sportsmen, all these footballers, all these actors, all these teachers, writers, et cetera, who were just not there in those days. You did not see people doing these things that might provide some kind of idea, on the one hand, role models, or on the other, simply an awareness that they weren’t all stupid, ignorant criminals or something like this. I do think though that there is, in the attitude of the authorities, the administration and the press, and a core of the British nation, there is a kind of defensiveness, now they call it culture wars, or they call it something else, but basically a kind of defensiveness, which continues this battle, which is, as I’ve said several times, a battle which has no moral ground whatsoever. The moral argument was lost ages ago. And to talk about the presence of other people in this way, is simply to be mean, to be indeed more than mean now, when we see people dying in the Channel. And then those who arrive are detained in horrible circumstances. It’s more than mean, it’s inhumane.
NDTV: Right. In fact, there are still people who’ve been in, sort of camps for 10 years and nothing’s being done about them. Right?
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: Well, the rules about people who have been detained and then allowed to leave detention, are also still to restrict them. For example, they may not be in a detention center, although many are, the new arrivals, they may not be in a detention center anymore, but they’re not allowed to work. Which means they have to be dependent on what the state gives them. They cannot spend whatever the state gives them in any way they want. They can only spend it on certain things. They can’t travel anywhere without permission. And basically, they can’t go anywhere. So, people are in this limbo sometimes for, in some cases, 10, 12, 13 years. And any infringement of these rules, so, for example, if you take a part-time job, I know this is not just an anecdote, I know for sure. If you take a little part-time job, just because you want to get a little money to spend, for either going to a cinema, or something like that, and if you’re found, then you can be jailed for that. So, these are really quite unnecessary draconian laws.
NDTV: Right. Far from getting your rights. But you’ve spoken over the years, even recently, and interacted with migrants, all types, including like gypsy migrants to England. What are some of the issues that migrants have told you, that have moved you and altered your perspective?
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s the way they are received really, that keeps making me return to addressing these issues. Both in the fiction, but also in other ways, in being involved with some of the organizations. Experiences are different, everybody goes through different experiences. Or rather, there may be some overlap, or some similarities, but you can’t compare what has happened to say Syrian refugees, to the Roma refugees, or Roma asylum seekers anyway, or indeed to what would’ve happened to the so-called Asians when they first came to Britain. These are all different people starting from different places. What moves them to make the journey as well is also different. Sometimes it is violence or war that they are trying to escape. Sometimes it’s poverty or sometimes just simply a desire to make a better life. So, these are people who are doing, who are making this journey in the same way as Europeans made, millions and millions of them made this journey, towards other people’s countries, throughout the last 400 or so years. So, this is nothing new, this, this business of human beings moving large distances to seek a safer or better life. It’s just simply they happen not to be Europeans.
NDTV: Right. Exactly. And I think you write about, they’re not coming to be begging, they’re coming to improve their life, contribute in some way or the other. And, to be treated as someone who’s come to beg is totally unjust and unfair. You’ve refer to how colonial powers and their majoritarianism have left many nations divided, politically, culturally, religious, certainly true about East Africa. And of course, about India, with the division of India and Pakistan. But some of this majoritarianism and the divide and rule continues today by our own people across the world. Have we learned a certain amount of hatred and suppression from the colonial powers? Is that a lasting impact you see today, across all countries that used to be colonies? And they’re using the same tactic that the colonial rulers did, divide and rule.
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: Well, I don’t think you can blame that on colonialism. I think we have to blame that on kind a streak of nastiness that is in, you know, those who seek power, human beings who seek power. So, if you take of a nation, well hardly not in every case is this a nation, but some kind of territory which has been drawn and is administered by colonial rule, which is coercive and you take that over, then those tools of coercion are already in your hands. And it seems to me that most post-colonial states have actually not been able to resist continuing to use those coercive rules that they inherited from colonial administrations. And I don’t know if you can blame that on colonialism directly. I mean, I think you could have said, we don’t want these rules anymore. We don’t want, you know, detention without whatever it is, without trial. And so on. But it seems in most cases that post-colonial states were just happy to go on using emergency laws, detention laws, security forces against their own people, as opposed to working for their people and so on. So, I think this is just to do with our nastiness, at least the nastiness of those who seek power.
NDTV: I agree. Absolutely. You know, what we tend to do, is all our nastiness we blame on the colonial powers, but you’re right. It’s some inherent nastiness as well. Now, I’m aware that you write without any political intent, you write for your own enjoyment and for others to enjoy your reading or your writing. But let me tell you that your writing does have a significant, political impact, unintentional or intentional. So, now that you’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature, believe me, your writing is likely to have a major impact on forces against colonialism, racism, majoritarianism. So, how do you feel when your writing becomes a catalyst for change? Have you ever spoken with anyone who used, or is using your writing for the fight against injustice? And what do you tell them?
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: Well, I wouldn’t have said in the first, well it’s very nice of you to make these predictions. Well, I wouldn’t have said that I only write just for my own pleasure, which of course is very important that I should feel that sense of pleasure and satisfaction when I write. But I hope that what I write is also reflections on what I see, reflections on what I see, in what I see is wrong or injustices, as you say. But on the other hand I don’t occupy a platform position. I don’t say, I speak for so and so, or I want you to do what I say. What I do is I speak for myself, as it were, I speak for myself and make observations on what I see. But it’s not just simply kind of like inner reflections, it’s reflecting on the world we live in, I hope.
NDTV: So, if somebody comes to you and says, ‘Professor Gurnah, it’s what I read of your writings that made me fight’, what do you say? Good for you or please don’t blame it on me.
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: I’ll say, well, I hope you won.
NDTV: Okay. You know, one thing I love in your writing is, while you write in English, and I don’t know if you’ve had any Africa writers push back on that, you use many non-English words, Arabic, Swahili, even Hindi words like shabaash and taiyyari, and many others. But these words are never in italics in your books, or translated, or explained in brackets, or even in a glossary of terms at the end. This a deliberate part of your writing. Is it linked to a particular vision how English is, or should be? Do you use any of these non-English words in your everyday conversation or your lectures, and what has been the reaction, give us some examples of, when you look at somebody and say shabaash or a student, have they looked at you as though you’re a little crazy, or what?
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: Let me first explain why they’re there. Partly because I grew up in a multilingual culture. We, on the coast of East Africa, were open to influences from Saudi Arabia, from India, from even further afield, from Malaya, even from China. We were not unfamiliar. We were visited by people from all of these places, some of whom stayed, some of whom went back and so on. And they left something behind, always of course. They left their stories, they left their cuisine, they left their languages. And sometimes they took some of ours as well with them, religion, et cetera, all of these things. So, when I say multilingual, I really mean something even more than that. It was really, we were part of a kind of Indian Ocean cosmopolitan web, as it were. So, stories about India, about Bombay, as it used to be, or other places, particularly on the Western side of India, were regular and common. We had Indian communities of all kinds, Muslim Indians, Hindu Indians, Ismaili, et cetera. As well as people from different parts of the Gulf. So, all of this meant that the language itself, the language we spoke in an everyday way, was kind of intermingled as well with all of these words. You didn’t need to translate what gaadi meant to anyone. They knew you meant a cart, or a car or something like that. Nor did you need to translate certain English words. Also, Arabic words. They were all part of the language we spoke. So, when I come to writing, sometimes there isn’t an exact word in English, which will substitute there, which will do the same job as that word.
For example, when you speak of a person who has passed on, who has died, in Swahili, and in Islam generally, but certainly in Swahili, you say marehemu. And this is a way of showing respect. It means God’s mercy in this person. Now, there isn’t, there isn’t an expression like that, that wouldn’t sound pompous, if you wrote it in English, because this would be an everyday way of speaking about somebody. So that’s the reason, that there isn’t always an exact alternative. So, I leave it there and I like the texture it produces. So that’s why they’re there.
NDTV: That’s a lovely way to put it. I’ve understood it now fully. There is, there’s a little more than just the word gaadi, or seems to be, in your connection with India. You write, you talk about Calcutta and Bombay, Kerala quite a lot. You’ve interacted and written about Indian authors a lot. What is your connection, more than just shabaash, with India?
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: Well, I was just trying to explain. It is because Indian people lived among us, as well as we lived among them, and us. They’re not, not anymore, because after the revolution in 1964, many of them left, or were targeted, as it were so that they did leave. But certainly, when I was growing up, in my teenage years, many of my schoolmates, I went to school with Indian people, many of my friends, there’s people we played sports with. As I say, living in the town, you walked down one street, there’s a Hindu temple. You walked down another street, there is a mosque, et cetera. So, they were amongst us. And we teased them. And they teased us. So, we knew something of their culture, something of their cultures should I say, and something of their lives. And they knew about us. They didn’t seem far away at all. But this is Zanzibar. But there’s still a lot of Indian people in Tanzania itself. And a lot of Indian people in Kenya, of course. So, we’re familiar with people, with Somali people, with Indian people, with Arab people.
NDTV: Right. One of the things that you don’t do and which we do a lot, and in fact, I think people from Zanzibar also do a lot, is what we call adda. Adda means just sitting around and talking, go to the university Coffee House in Calcutta and you just talk. And you, in a way, say that in Zanzibar, that prevented them from reading that much. In Bengal we do adda, and we read. But why didn’t you like adda?
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: I didn’t say I didn’t like it. But quite often I used, we used to say, we would see, even today, not quite as much, of course, not quite as much, because things have changed, communities have changed. For example, the cafe idea has changed. It used to be that every street corner had a small cafe. And outside of the cafe, there’d be some chairs and tables and people would be sitting there talking, gossiping, talking, watching what’s going on. You’ll notice that it in almost every single one of my novels that happens in Zanzibar, there is always a group of people sitting around talking. Because that’s how it was. That’s what people did. I don’t think that’s what stopped people reading though. I don’t know if I ever said that, but if I did, I was not quite correct. I don’t think it was that, that stopped people reading. What stopped people reading were several things. One is that they were not always literate. So, literacy was not a big thing yet. At least with a certain generation. And books are expensive. And also, it’s a lot easier to just sit around, drinking coffee and yapping, so that’s what people did.
NDTV: No, but you know, you’re completely wrong. They’re not sitting around gossiping, they’re solving global problems. They’re talking about climate change. Majoritarianism. You have misunderstood, especially the Bengali. After an adda session, you have solved a lot of global problems. But I do have one …
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: I have also sat around and listened to people talking about the world and solving the world’s problems in ways which are quite frightening, in the degree of their misunderstanding of what’s going on in the world.
NDTV: Exactly. Well, finally last question, and thank you again very much for sparing this time. Now you’ve won the Nobel Prize, you’ve made us all so proud. There’s nothing bigger than this or is there? Do you have any ambitions still?
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: Well, no, this is wonderful. I’m very, very proud of this award. And I’m honoured, of course. I don’t know if there’s anything bigger, I haven’t stopped thinking about this yet. I’ll see if I open up my ambitions and see what else there is. I think what I would like is for, to be able, in due course, when these celebrations, and these sorts of conversations have had their run as it were, to be able to return to writing, and to continue what I’ve been doing. So, but for that moment, I’m just very happy to have been the one that the Swedish Academy have chosen to honour with this prize. So, I’m happy with that.
NDTV: Of course, of course. And so are we all. And all I can say is, knowing whatever I read about, from you, about you and your writings, I would like to end by saying, from Professor Gurnah, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This is just a stepping stone. But thank you very much, and happy birthday. This is your, 35th or 28th birthday or something like that, right? Roughly, roughly?
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: I’m in my late twenties. Yes.
NDTV: Yes, exactly. God Bless you. And once again, thank you very much. And we look forward to you coming to India. And we will welcome you. And thank you very much. And we are proud of you. Thank you very much. And shabaash
Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah: Shabaash indeed. Thank you.